It’s been two years in the making, but the Lake Mitchell master plan is complete, providing city leaders with a road map to enhance the recreation opportunities at the lake.

Over the past two years, the Parks and Recreation Department has been working with a team of North Dakota State University professors and graduate students to construct a recreation-focused master plan for Lake Mitchell. Throughout the process, city officials and project leaders surveyed the community to get a better understanding of what they would like to see improve the recreation at the 693-acre body of water.

“Of course, cleaning the water is the city’s biggest priority. But the recreation side of the lake and increasing more people to use the lake and its surrounding features is just as important because that’s the goal after we get the water quality improved,” said Parks and Recreation Director Nathan Powell. “This master plan also helps open up grant funding to fund the projects that everyone would like to see out at the lake. Those grant funding sources want to see an organized and detailed plan before giving those out.”

Among the main goals for the lake that the survey identified were building a marina to act as a central boat dock area, adding cabins for lodging, creating more unique biking and hiking trails and enhancing the parks and public facilities around the lake.

The survey that was open to the public roughly two years ago helped project leaders gauge the community’s outlook on the lake. With the long history of algae woes threatening the water quality, the survey -- which saw roughly 700 respondents -- showed 65% of Mitchell residents no longer swim in the lake due to the water, while 35% still swim in it. However, 75% of the respondents said they were “most likely” to begin swimming in the lake if water quality improved.

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“We could attract two times the usage of places such as beaches, boat ramps, waterfront decks, and water access areas, if the water quality issue was solved,” Powell said.

As city officials are focusing on devising a future dredging project, the survey helped explain the type of impact improving the water quality would have on Lake Mitchell. To no surprise, it was tabbed in the survey as the most critical step for the lake’s future. After three engineering firms recently pitched their proposals to lead a future Lake Mitchell dredging project, the city appears to be inching closer to dredging the lake and addressing the algae-laden water. But Powell said the recreation side of the lake needs to be in a better position post-dredging.

“Aside from cleaning the water, adding a marina with a restaurant and cabin rentals and enhancing the trail systems were the recreation amenities that the community wants to see at the lake in the future,” Powell said. “We get calls from people asking about boat docks, so there is a demand. But we wanted to see where people would want it to be located.”

The results of a community impact survey on Lake Mitchell found the West End boat launch as the best location for a future marina and boat dock. (Matt Gade / Republic)
The results of a community impact survey on Lake Mitchell found the West End boat launch as the best location for a future marina and boat dock. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Through the survey, the West End boat launch was identified as the best location for a future marina and boat dock. As a result of the master plan, NDSU provided the city with a design of the marina, which featured a two-story building with a restaurant that overlooks the lake, a cement walkway attachment extending out into the water and a large boat dock with T-shape parking spots.

For City Councilman Jeff Smith, adding more recreation opportunities to the lake is important, as he says it’s “under-utilized.” While he noted the marina is an appealing idea, Smith said it would take a lot of planning and investment for the project to materialize. For the immediate future, Smith pointed to the public boat dock idea as something that the lake could use now.

“One thing we do know is that we under-utilize the lake. And I think a boat dock would help draw more people to get out there and use it. It’s a big lake, and it can handle a lot of activity,” Smith said in an interview with the Mitchell Republic. “On a grander scale, the marina would take quite an investment, and I would hope that some private entity would step up and try to make it a viable business.”

Another interesting take away from the survey was the usage of kayaks and canoes. The survey showed 35% of respondents use kayaks and canoes in the lake, which was second to the 60% of people who use motorized boats. Powell said it showed that Lake Mitchell Campground needs to continue offering kayak rentals to the public.

“It’s important to keep options open for everyone to enjoy the lake, not just those who have boats,” Powell said.

Economic impact

During the process of creating the master plan, Powell said NDSU honed in on the economic impact a cleaner lake would have on the existing homes around the body of water. According to NDSU’s analysis, the combined property values for homes along the lake that are within 500 feet of the shoreline amounts to roughly $62.2 million, which generates a little over $1 million property taxes.

To show the impact of improving the water quality of Lake Mitchell, the master plan states that it could increase property values to roughly $93.4 million, which could amount to $1.6 million in property taxes for the city.

“The economic impact of cleaning the lake and bringing more recreation opportunities would be huge. Although this wasn’t a complete economic analysis, it gives you a rough idea of the value of our lake,” Powell said.

Considering Lake Mitchell is one of the largest bodies of water in southeast South Dakota, Powell anticipates more recreation amenities post-dredging could attract a sizable amount of visitors from around the surrounding area. The lake generates roughly $1.2 million in annual revenue from visitors living at least 30 miles from the lake, according to NDSU’s study.

With a cleaner lake and more recreation opportunities, the study estimates that annual visitor spending could increase to $2.9 million.

“We are positioned in a unique way, because Sioux Falls doesn’t have a lake that is the size of Mitchell’s. Investing in these improvements would have a big impact on the city,” Powell said.